How George Washington read to accomplish goals

How George Washington read to accomplish goals

Many people view George Washington as the American example of an accomplished military and political leader. Washington’s many accomplishments are well known. George Washington was mostly self-taught. He read to accomplish goals. John Adams said that a real revolution is in the minds of people. It is through the formation of George Washington’s mind that helped the American Revolution come to pass.

Scene at the Signing of the Constitution of the United States by Howard Chandler Christy

History of Reading

Dr. Adrienne Harrison is a former U.S. Army Officer and history professor at U.S. Military Academy at West Point. She conducted new research on the reading background of George Washington. Research on Washington’s life is extensive. Remarkably, her work breaks new ground. She analyzed Washington’s library for clues with what he read and what he did. Most noteworthy, Washington’s education was deficient compared to other Founding Fathers like Jefferson and Adams. In turn, this made Washington extremely self-conscious. Dr. Harrison reveals what he did to mitigate his shortcomings in her book, “A Powerful Mind: The Self-Education of George Washington” published in 2015. She charted his self-education throughout the stages of his life and career that helped him become a wealthy landowner, victorious general, and first executive of the United States. Washington read to accomplish goals in education.

Early Education

George Washington’s education spanned only about seven or eight years of schooling by a private tutor. What many people may not know is that his formal education ended at age 11 following the death of this father. Unlike other more prominent families in Virginia, he had no training in Latin, Greek or law. Aside from these shortcomings, young Washington sought out the information he needed. He was motivated to become a land surveyor, so he set about reading a book on surveying. Putting his father’s surveying equipment and new found knowledge to work, he acquired an apprenticeship with a surveyor at the age of 16. This work led to him to secure work which led to earning enough money to purchase land.


George Washington’s birthplace, engraving by Harper’s Magazine 1856

Practical Reading

Washington knew the path to financial freedom was the ownership of land. Land offered the means to raise crops that could be sold for profit. Throughout Washington’s life, he read agricultural manuals so that he may learn to farm and to improve yields. Washington’s library predominately contains books related to farming. His journals include detailed records of his farm operations and outcomes.


George Washington, engraving Night Council at Fort Necessity publisher and date unknown

Militia officer

As a prominent landowner, Washington joined the militia to gain stature with British Governors and Generals. Washington wanted a commission in the British Army. He read to accomplish goals of improving his military knowledge and securing a commission. Washington consumed all available military manuals relating to soldiering and drills to impress British military officers.

He applied his skills as a militia officer and fought in the 7 Years War which spilled onto the American continent.  The conflict split Europe into two coalitions, led by the Kingdom of Great Britain on one side and the Kingdom of France. Great Britain won the war, and by the end of the conflict, Washington was not able to secure a commission in the British Army. British Generals saw Washington as a mere colonist and not of the same caliber as a British citizen. This rebuttal was a driving factor in which Washington broke from Great Britain. These chain of events led to becoming an American, fostering his support for the American Revolution and taking command of the Continental Army.



Washington needed to establish the credibility of the Continental Army to garner support from allies for vital arms and supplies to win a war with Great Britain. Great Britain quelled uprisings from unorganized colonists judiciously. Washington understood that professionalizing the leadership of the Continental Army was the path to securing credibility of a standing army. Therefore, he went on a book buying campaign before the outbreak of war. He encouraged subordinates to read all available military manuals in the colonies.

Washington at Verplanck's Point on the North River on September 14, 1782

Washington at Verplanck’s Point on the North River on September 14, 1782, reviewing the French troops under General Rochambeau on their return from Virginia after the victory at Yorktown by John Trumball 1789


After winning the war, Washington’s remained self-conscious with his lack of formal education. While he was not considered an intellectual, he invented the office without any role models by reading voraciously and applying what he learned. Washington maintained a firm grasp of the issues of the day through reading periodicals, political pamphlets, and political-religious sermons to understand the strengths and weaknesses of the fledgling democracy. Washington was successful in maintaining a government and a coalition of opposing views by reading to accomplish goals.

Scene at the Signing of the Constitution of the United States by Howard Chandler Christy

Scene at the Signing of the Constitution of the United States by Howard Chandler Christy


There are some key things we can learn from George Washington in how we read to accomplish goals.

  • Utilitarian reading: reading for practical application.
  • Gain useful knowledge, not just for the sake of it.
  • Turn knowledge weaknesses into strengths by reading.
  • Develop reading into a life habit.


If you want to read more, see Dr. Harrison’s book “A Powerful Mind: The Self-Education of George Washington.”

If you want to learn how to improve your reading habit, check out my post, 4 Ways to Read More Books.

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